Residents of a Seattle neighborhood say a city plan for development related to light rail would allow buildings that are too tall across from a historic high school.
While many neighborhoods confronted with a multimillion-dollar government construction project and a city proposal for blocks of dramatically taller buildings would cry, “Not in my backyard!” the Roosevelt neighborhood has said, “Bring it on.”
Roosevelt residents lobbied Sound Transit to move a planned light-rail station from near Interstate 5 to the heart of their business district.
They’ve agreed with the city of Seattle’s proposal to allow taller buildings around the station, up to 85 feet — about eight stories. And they share the view of transit advocates and environmentalists who argue that light-rail stations should be catalysts to create urban centers where people walk to stores, ride transit to jobs, and don’t have to own cars.
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“We sang the song,” said Jim O’Halloran, former president of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association. “‘Bring the train. We want to make your train the center of our urban village.'”
Up to a point.
The neighbors support the city’s proposal to rezone about 18 blocks centering on Northeast 65th Avenue and Roosevelt Way Northeast, and the light-rail station planned for 12th Avenue Northeast, between 65th and 67th. But they object to allowing buildings up to 65 feet high — about six stories — directly across from Roosevelt High School.
The historic high school sits on a hill with sweeping views of Mount Rainier, the downtown Seattle skyline and the Olympic Mountains.
The 1922 building was recently renovated by the Seattle Public Schools at a cost of $93 million and is the neighborhood’s only city-designated historic landmark.
Residents don’t want views of and from their neighborhood’s namesake blocked by a big new apartment or condominium. They say limiting the building height there to a maximum of 40 feet would allow more light into the high school and provide a more gradual transition to the surrounding blocks of single-family homes.
The neighborhood association has suggested a trade: Extend the 85-foot zoning, now proposed around the central business district, to the northwest in exchange for a 40-foot limit across from Roosevelt High.
“We like the physical presence of our educational institution on the hill,” O’Halloran said.
The City Council’s land-use committee will hold a public hearing on the rezone proposal at 6 p.m. Monday at Roosevelt High School. The council likely will vote on a plan by year’s end.
Planning for growth around future light-rail stops is a regional issue, with as many as 100 transit centers planned in the next 20 years, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council, a four-county regional planning organization.
Seattle’s population is expected to grow from about 609,000 to nearly 1 million by 2040, according to the regional council, and planners say one way to accommodate that growth without causing environmental harm in the form of carbon emissions and sprawl is to concentrate new growth around transit hubs.
Roosevelt activists embraced that vision.
The area already was a desirable neighborhood close to the University of Washington and to the jogging trails of Green Lake, with a large stock of vintage Craftsman bungalows on tree-lined streets. Residents saw the planned light-rail station as an opportunity to enliven the area’s business district with “more people, cooler shops, neat restaurants, more diversity and vitality,”said O’Halloran, who now serves as land-use chairman for the neighborhood association.
The city initially proposed heights up to 65 feet around the light-rail station and 40 feet across from the school. But when a city environmental review projected just 348 new units of housing, transit advocates urged the city to increase the density.
Mayor Mike McGinn jumped into the debate in June.
He urged the city planning department to work with the neighborhood and try to accommodate more density around the light-rail station scheduled to open in 2021. The mayor also told the planning director that he wouldn’t support a developer’s request for buildings up to 125 feet tall across from the high school.
“Take towers off the table,” the mayor wrote. In response, the city raised its recommended height limits to 85 feet around the station and 65 feet across from Roosevelt High.
“The difference of 20 feet isn’t that great,” McGinn said last week. “The public benefits from a height that allows for more design flexibility and an improved streetscape. We want to see those lots developed in a way that respects the neighborhood but also takes advantage of our regional investment in light rail.”
The proposal to allow six-story buildings across from Roosevelt High School is complicated by a long history of strained relations with landlord Hugh Sisley, who owns more than 40 properties in the neighborhood — including the block directly south of the high school.
Sisley has racked up dozens of city-code violations over the years for rundown rental houses with trash in the yards, cockroaches in the walls, tar-paper roofs and unsafe wiring.
Sisley now has leased his properties to the Roosevelt Development Group, which has applied for a rezone to allow a building up to 125 feet (about 12 stories) across from the high school. That rezone is on a separate track from the city-proposed rezone of the entire business district.
The developer cautions that if the neighborhood fights the 65-foot limit across from the high school, the boarded-up, dilapidated houses may not be redeveloped at all.
“We’ve leased that block and the rest of his [Sisley's] properties on the ability to develop them. At 40 feet, there will be no redevelopment. He won’t permit it,” said Ed Hewson, co-principal of the development group.
Meanwhile, regional planning continues for the light-rail service that is expected to eventually run to Everett, Tacoma and Redmond.
And at every stop, neighbors are likely to raise the same concerns about density and neighborhood character.
The Puget Sound Regional Council last year received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to support neighborhood planning and affordable housing around transit centers.
Sound Transit’s planned Northgate station, next on the North Link line after Roosevelt, will serve as a demonstration project for the region with extensive outreach to surrounding neighborhoods, including low-income, minority and immigrant residents.
Plans also call for transforming an automobile mecca — Northgate Mall and the surrounding strip malls — into a place that works for bicycles and pedestrians.
“Neighbors worry about being displaced, about the effects of density,” said Rick Olson, spokesman for the regional council. “If we’re going to make the most of the billions we’ve invested in light rail, then people should be able to live where they’ll use it.”
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org